There may be no greater outrage in local government than the idea that a mayor or alderman would use taxpayer money for their own good — no matter how small the amount.
Voters put their trust in the people they elect that they will not only represent their interests and be good watchdogs over how millions of dollars are spent on roads, salaries and the other demands of government -- but that, at the very least, they won't siphon some of that money off for their personal use.
Yet, the Dispatch-Argus’ reporting over the weekend about the misuse of funds that are set aside for Rock Island aldermen each year is a clear example that something is wrong.
Much of the report, which sampled four years of spending, focused on Virgil Mayberry, who represented the 2nd ward but was defeated in April. The newspaper reported that he purchased a bullet-proof vest, custom cuff links and spent public funds on dry cleaning expenses and gasoline. The report also said that he often didn't supply receipts for the expenditures.
Each of the city’s aldermen are allotted $4,000 a year for expenses — $2,000 each for a representation fund and professional development fund. This is in addition to the $6,000 they’re paid annually.
Mayberry refused to comment to the Dispatch-Argus, but he defended his expenditures at a city council meeting on Monday. Mayberry said he did nothing wrong, instead making the accusation that there was an organized plot to "get rid of me."
At the least, we think the city ought to move quickly to solve the problems that let this kind of spending occur.
The most glaring is that while the city has an expense policy, it does not offer clear guidelines for how such money is to be spent.
"I am not aware of any existing city ordinance or official city policy specifying or listing what expenses qualify as reimbursable expenses for an alderman conducting public business," Dave Morrison, the city attorney, told the newspaper.
City policy does warn that disciplinary action can be taken against employees who "intentionally perform a fraudulent act."
This isn't enough. We think the city council needs to immediately put stricter guidelines in place. Those guidelines should include, as much as possible, what are prohibited expenditures. Cuff links would be a good place to start. (Mayberry said those were gifts to others.)
There also should be a strictly enforced requirement that receipts be provided, as well as the establishment of a system to recover misspending. If taxpayer money is spent on personal expenses, the public has a right to that money back.
Frankly, we think rules like these ought to be considered by any local government that doesn't already have such guidelines in place.
The Rock Island City Council approved the expenditures, but we wonder just how close they were looking. Perhaps the formation of a committee to oversee these accounts would help; the idea that somebody is on the hook for oversight might incentivize greater scrutiny.
In fact, it might just be a good idea to get rid of the personal and professional development accounts and simply reimburse council members as legitimate expenditures are made. If the money isn't fronted to them, and they know there will be oversight, elected officials might exercise an extra amount of caution.
We would note, too, that the reporting also found some aldermen donated some of their allotments to charities.
Beginning in 2016, Joshua Schipp, who represented the 6th ward but did not seek re-election this year, donated a total of $7,350 from his personal expense account to the Keystone Neighborhood Association, an organization he once served as president until he stepped down in 2014 to run for city council.
Schipp said no one is paid within the organization and he saw the donation as a way to provide it some stability. He also gave money to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center.
Our view is that individual aldermen should not have discretionary funds that allow them to disburse taxpayer money to organizations.
The City of Rock Island has a budget of over $100 million, so the thousands of dollars allotted to council members is only a fraction of its overall expenditures. However, when any of that money is misspent by the people elected to be watchdogs over taxpayer money, public confidence is eroded.
We hope the city council works quickly to put in place the policies and procedures that will prevent this from happening again.